The theme of this year’s Western Conservative Summit was “Defending Religious Freedom.” In the summit’s opening session, Chairman Jeff Hunt told attendees regarding Colorado, “our state is going in the wrong direction – an unbiblical, godless direction.”
These descriptions of threats to religion were connected to a phenomenon many speakers described: American culture rapidly changing and becoming unrecognizable from a country they grew up in. In particular, the new focus on “political correctness,” especially on university campuses, was a major area of concern for many speakers. Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization with over 1400 chapters, was one of the presenting partners of the event and founder Charlie Kirk was a headlining speaker on the first night of the summit.
In his summit address, Kirk said he decided to focus on reaching out to young students because, “the fight has just begun on these campuses…for the soul of this country.” Kirk claimed, “Hatred for our country is being taught in universities by people who hate our country.” Referring to liberal college professors as “bitter,” Kirk added, “these bitter people are trying to make all of our lives simultaneously miserable.”
Kirk expressed solidarity with conservative students at colleges in universities, telling students who were listening, “I know your grades are getting lowered. I know your professors are coming after you. I know you’re losing friends over this.” Regarding the claim that conservative students are getting their grades lowered, it’s possible Kirk was referring to a study from the University of Arkansas, which found that liberal students report a higher college GPA and better relationships with their professors than their conservative counterparts.
Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood Director turned pro-life activist that speaks out against the organization, also spoke on the first day of the submit and emphasized the need for conservatives to pay attention to what’s happening on college campuses. Johnson said that women in college are often in vulnerable situations, and “wherever there are vulnerable women, there is Planned Parenthood.”
In a follow up email, Johnson elaborated, “Women on college campuses are often far from home and engaged in behaviors that they know their parents wouldn't be proud of,” and Planned Parenthood staff, “get these vulnerable women to rely on faulty contraceptive methods, knowing they will likely fail, and build a relationship in order to draw them back in for an abortion when their birth control fails.”
On the second day of the summit, Charlie Copeland of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization that promotes conservative thought on college campuses, and Jennifer Kabbany, editor of The College Fix - an online student-reported publication, self-described as "right-minded news" - hosted a workshop titled “The Culture of Suppression: Can Campus Free Speech Be Saved?”
Highlighting the summit’s theme of living in a rapidly changing country, Kabbany said, “the college campus is one of the main battlegrounds in the fight to save America,” adding that young students are experiencing “liberal indoctrination” on university campuses. This perception is likely due to the disproportionately high number of professors who self-identify as liberal. A 2014 study from the Higher Education Research Institute indicated that overall liberal academics outnumber conservatives by a rate of 6 to 1.
Kabbany asserted that there is a “culture of fear and intimidation not only for students but for faculty,” as “they have to pretend to be liberal to get tenure.” This claim may refer to accounts compiled from conservative professors in a study by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr, in which the authors claimed that of the 150 professors they spoke with about a third of them described hiding their political affiliation from their colleagues until they were granted tenure.
Copeland believes the American public school system also contributes to liberal bias at colleges and universities. Of primary and secondary education, Copeland said, “It is a socialist system” due to public funding and government regulation these schools receive. Additionally, Copeland claimed that “education majors are trained by a liberal, progressive cohort.”
In his keynote speech, Kirk offered a similar sentiment to Copeland’s views on public schools. Kirk said, “If it was up to me, millions more people should homeschool their kids” because “the source of these bad ideas…it starts in high schools, grade schools, school boards.”
In regard to how this perception of liberal bias affects students, Copeland claimed, “There’s not one day that goes by that our staff don’t hear about one of our students…being attacked for their beliefs.” Copeland cited an incident at Wake Forest University, where a student received death threats for defending a parody campaign ad about building a wall between Wake Forest and a rival school on Twitter.
At another point in the workshop, Copeland cited an incident at Portland State University, when graduate student Andy Ngo was beaten at an Antifa rally while covering the event for the school newspaper.
Both Copeland and Kabbany believe the hostility towards conservative students and faculty extends beyond threats and instances of violence. Copeland discussed a recent panel held at Notre Dame University titled “Confronting Whiteness at Notre Dame: Power, Identity and Exclusion.” Regarding this event, Copeland asked, “If faculty members are allowed to have a panel discussion on the oppressiveness of white culture, what message does that send to white students?”
With many attendees of the workshop indicating they were parents or grandparents, Kabbany suggested one way to address liberal bias on college campuses is to look into other career and education options that don’t involve having their children go to a 4-year college or university.
“Not every high school senior needs to go straight to a 4-year college,” Kabbany said. “I started at a community college.” Kabbany also mentioned the option of joining the military right out of high school, explaining that her own son is a Marine. Kabbany suggested that universities may be forced to change their behavior towards conservatives if conservative students increasingly opt to no longer attend 4-year institutions.
“Let’s take away their power. Let’s talk with our wallets,” Kabbany added. “We don’t have to play their game.”
Indeed, the “education gap” between democratic and republican voters is already evident within American politics. According to Pew Research Center, in the 2016 election two-thirds of non-college-educated white voters cast their vote for Trump. Overall, Trump won non-college-educated voters by 8 points. This gap will likely only widen if conservative students increasingly opt to not attend a 4-year institution.
Kirk expressed optimism about the future of conservatism on college campuses. Kirk concluded that based on his interactions with students, “Students are not opposed to our ideas. They’re just not exposed to them in the first place.”
However, Kirk also expressed an urgency that conservatives address the climate on college campuses immediately, as “Whatever happens on college campuses will soon happen in the halls of Congress.”